Political and Market Forces Hobble Israel's Pack of Ink-Stained Watchdogs

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JERUSALEM -- The mainstream newspaper Maariv is on the verge of closing, apparently having lost a fierce 64-year contest against the populist Hebrew tabloid Yediot Aharonot. On Thursday, Haaretz, the flagship broadsheet of Israel's left-wing intelligentsia, was not published for the first time in three decades; the newsroom held a one-day strike to protest the planned layoff of scores of employees.

Israel's print media are in crisis, squeezed by both the global pressures of the digital age and a small, crowded Hebrew-language market that is undergoing convulsions of its own. Channel 10, one of Israel's two commercial television stations, also hangs precariously, waiting to be salvaged either by the government or by investment from abroad.

Media experts here speak of an ominous trend: a once-diverse news bazaar that is becoming more concentrated and prone to political influence. In particular, they say, the economics of the print media have been skewed by the arrival five years ago of Israel Hayom, a free national newspaper owned by Sheldon Adelson, a conservative American billionaire who is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom, viewed as pro-Netanyahu, now claims the widest distribution of any Hebrew newspaper on weekdays. Public television and radio have also come under tighter state control.

While newspapers worldwide are struggling, in the small market of Israel, with its population of nearly eight million Hebrew, Arabic and Russian speakers, the threat seems magnified. Given its size, Israel has a relatively large number of media outlets, said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, who leads the Media Reform Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research center. That intensifies the competition among newspapers for readers and advertising, and Israel Hayom, with Mr. Adelson's backing, has been able to take over a larger share of the market.

The advent of Israel Hayom, Ms. Shwartz Altshuler added, has accelerated a situation "that would have happened anyway."

The narrowing of the media marketplace may please some conservatives in Mr. Netanyahu's government. Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister, was recently recorded at a closed meeting of his Likud Party activists saying that while "media is important in a democracy," the Israeli media for the most part favor the left over Likud.

"Beyond that," he continued, "the media has lost its respect for one small, simple word: 'truth.' There is no more respect for the word truth."

Tzipi Livni, the former leader of the opposition, came to the media's defense in a recent column for Maariv. "I am sure that some politicians feel more secure with a shrinking number of media outlets and the fact that there are journalists now in need of the government's help."

She continued, "I prefer a number of watchdogs, some of which make mistakes sometimes, or neglect their duty or bark too loudly, over one loyal dog who speaks in one voice -- his master's voice."

The management of Maariv is now in the hands of court-appointed trustees after its owner could no longer afford to cover its losses. A sale is pending to Shlomo Ben-Zvi, an Israeli who publishes a right-leaning newspaper called Makor Rishon.

But even if the sale to Mr. Ben-Zvi goes through, he has said he will retain only about 300 of Maariv's 2,000 employees, to keep Maariv's Web site going and perhaps publish the newspaper in a limited format. That means that 1,700 journalists, administrative staff members and print workers will probably be out of a job.

"It is like a sausage merchant who buys a horse and tells him about all the wonderful trips that await him," said Zvi Reich, a former editor at Yediot Aharonot and now in the communications department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "It will be brutal."

Aware that the company does not have the money to pay all their compensation and pensions, Maariv employees have staged protests in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

This week, Amos Schocken, the publisher of Haaretz, raised the specter of closing the newspaper if his employees could not adapt to the new, starker business reality.

Analysts said Maariv had been suffering from financial decline and bad management for up to 15 years and had lost its identity the more it tried to mimic Yediot Aharonot, which caters to the middlebrow reader.

Haaretz, however, fills a distinctive niche. Though its circulation is small, its impact is broad.

"Israel without Haaretz would be like Israel without the Supreme Court," said Uzi Benziman, a former Haaretz columnist and now editor of The Seventh Eye, an online journal dealing with Israeli media issues.

"It is not surprising that Maariv is the first to go," he said. "I'm not sure it will be the last."

Still, for many here, the demise of Maariv would leave a hole in the country's history. The newspaper was founded in 1948, the year Israel became a state, by disgruntled journalists at Yediot Aharonot (Latest News), the leading Hebrew newspaper at the time, who walked out in a dispute over work conditions and journalistic principles. The new paper, originally called Yediot Maariv (Evening News), soon became known simply as Maariv.

In its first two decades, Maariv was regarded as the most widely read newspaper in Israel and the most connected with the political, economic and social elite. The decline began in the 1970s, according to Rafi Mann, who worked at the newspaper for nearly 30 years and now teaches journalism at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Then, Mr. Mann said, the editors of Yediot Aharonot "understood the social revolution taking place in Israel," along with the rise of Menachem Begin's Likud Party, which spoke for a public that saw itself as the underdog.

But Maariv, he added, "did not read the social map of Israel well."

Though Maariv has continued to break some important stories, its prominent editors and columnists, like the satirist Ephraim Kishon, belong mainly in the past.

"In the last few years," Mr. Mann said, "both advertisers and the public have been asking, 'What is the branding of Maariv?' "

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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